Not once upon a time or long ago, but between this breath and the next, a Tree grows from the earth. No matter how sharp the blade, it cannot be felled. Unlike most of its kind, it wanders restless as a thing uprooted. It shifts like a seed on the wind until it comes upon an apple tree or a pomegranate or an almond, and for a season, the Tree settles into its roots.
You will know the Tree has come by the golden shimmer of its fruit. One day it grows ripe and ordinary, the next it winks with Midas-touched hues. It is a subtle difference. A shift of the light, a glimmer caught at the flickering edge of sight that turns your head. It is tempting to run your fingers over the skin, just to assure yourself of the difference. Even easier to pluck it from the branch and bring it to your eye and then your lips. From there, it is nothing to peel-crack-bite the skin. No matter the tree—fig, date, peach—the fruit is both sweet and bitter. Those who taste it say it lingers on the tongue.
For some, it is worth it. Everyone knows what the Tree can give. Few think to ask what it takes.
I have heard the stories sung during the harvest as the scythes reap the ripened grain and whispered around the hearth during the longest and darkest nights. I have heard them spoken from the pulpit laced with brimstone and fire and told in lulling voices to coax children to sleep. Across every land and over every sea, the stories have bloomed in weathered voices and reverent whispers, persistent as a weed. Doubtless, you have heard them.
Everyone who speaks of the Tree knows it is abundant with gifts: knowledge, power, bounty. It is a fulfiller of wishes. Some say only the kind and virtuous can find the Tree, or that the Tree only bestows its gifts upon the worthy. They are wrong. I have tasted of the Tree’s fruit, once, and I am neither kind nor virtuous. My wish was far from worthy. But I paid the price. I have given what the Tree takes.
I tell you this as a warning: the Tree is a hungry thing, and it will exact its price from anyone willing to taste its fruit.
You seek it, do you not? I recognize that look in your eye: a sharpness like hunger, a madness like hope. Do not try to deny it. You must have sought long and far to end up here. Take comfort, little one, you are close.
No, I will not tell you the way. You are a fool to be here at all. Thousands of years I have roamed this earth, guarding the Tree, waiting for it to die. But the Tree cannot be felled. It does not wither. Its roots twine through the cracks of this world, pushing it apart, holding it together. It is an endless and terrible embrace.
I have followed the Tree from Aidenn, and Eamhna, and the Garden of the Hesperides. I have chased its sweetness on the air across every land above the waves and several that have long sunk beneath them. Its bitterness is as familiar to me as the warmth of the sun on my scales. I have seen its glimmer come upon the Juniper tree sequestered in its mountain hold and the towering fronds of the Date palm rooted in the desert sands. Long have I guarded the Tree, trying to dissuade those fools like you who seek it, but the whispers of the Tree are insidious, and there are always those eager to listen.
Do you hear its voice on the wind? How far the words carry. Its whispers pass from treetop to treetop, dance unseen from root tip to root tip, until it blooms like a fungus at the rotting heartwood. Such sweet lies lay in its susurrate words. Such awful truths.
You have come to the Tree looking for salvation. I tell you now to turn away: the Tree gives no blessings. It grows only curses.
You call me a liar? Well, you are not the first. I have been named Serpent, Ladon, Wyrm-of-the-Fruit. I have been cursed and reviled by those who took without thinking of the cost. But it is up to you: either I lie, or the Tree does, and I grant no wishes. For many, it is an easy choice.
Do you hesitate? You have journeyed far. Your clothes are ragged and torn, the sandals at your feet bloodied from the miles beneath them worn into your skin. You have come seeking a miracle. I can taste the smell of your desperation on my tongue. And yet, you hesitate. Could it be that you believe me? You would be the first.
Go on, ask. I know that you are curious.
I was young, like you, when I came upon the Tree. The whole world was young and had not yet settled into its shape. Being was malleable, and I was as often legged and winged as I was scaled and slithering. I was as shifting as the winds, though less free. I yearned to see the world, changeable and unsettled as it was, each day filled with wonders made and unmade beyond my reach.
It was then that the shimmer of the golden curse came upon a plum tree in my mother’s garden. I was tempted by the sweet offerings of its fruit. Not once did I think of the glimmering, bitter skin it was wrapped in.
And my wish was granted. I have seen every hidden crevice of this world, every marvel, in my pursuit of the Tree. I have seen fires burn on the ocean and the flicker of colors beyond name slither through the sky. I have witnessed great nations rise and fall. I have marveled at beasts unseen by human eyes. I have traveled to islands born of mist that disappeared with the sun and basked upon the peaks of mountains that pierced the sky. I have tasted infinity poured from a thimble and heard the singing of an endless expanse of ice, and not once have I been satisfied.
This, you must understand: the Tree is grown of wanting. It feeds on the world’s desires, on the endless ache, on the unquenchable need. It cannot be sated, and neither can those who taste its fruit. Once your teeth have pierced the skin, the juice slaked your stated thirst and your wish been fulfilled, the taste will linger on your tongue. I taste it still.
To eat the fruit of the Tree is to never be content again. A cavern grows in your chest. A hollowness is carved in your belly. It does not matter how you try to fill them. The Seed has already taken root. You will always be wanting.
Oh, but the Tree is clever, it knows what is easiest to take. Some never even notice the taking.
Ah, you think it is not so high a price. I see your doubting eyes. Go on then. Mind the gnarled roots and grasping thorns. Find it, if you can. You will not mind if I coil my way through the branches alongside you. It has been a long time since anyone has wandered this close, and the Tree is bitter company. It does me good to hear another voice unshaped by leaves.
Besides, I have sworn to see this through.
You are a persistent little thing. No, I will not give you a hint. Were you not listening? I am neither kind nor virtuous, or did you think that too was a lie? No, I will not aid you in this folly. You must stumble upon it like all the rest. The brambles are exacting their due, though, aren’t they? Your legs are a bloodied mess. You must be weary. There is a stream not far from here that flows fast and cool. I could show you that, at least. Surely it would be better to breathe a moment and think. There is no saying whether you will discover what you seek. You might pass by the treasured limb like a moth upon rough bark, like a Tree hidden in a forest. Such things are easy to miss.
No? Well, you cannot fault me for trying. It is all that keeps me from going mad. Or perhaps it is a kind of madness that drives me to this fruitless task. I admit, it is a sort of vengeance that I seek. The last thing on this earth that might bring me any shiver of satisfaction is to thwart the Tree. But it is a conniving thing. The more I want, the stronger the Tree grows, and I want so terribly. No wanderer has yet believed me. You yourself remain unconvinced, though I think I might dissuade you still. You have a canny way about you —
Alas, your eyes are sharp.
I had hoped—but never mind. Behold, the treasure you have sought. It is both grand and terrible, no? Smaller than you thought? Well, it is often the way of such things. The Tree is, after all, only a tree. I believe this one is called a medlar tree. It is a peculiar fruit; strangely shaped and oddly eaten. They say it is best harvested overripe, nearly rotted on the branch. An apt choice, with the Tree’s gleam upon it. I remember well its taste. You will know it soon enough.
Wait a moment, child. Wait. There can be no hurry now. The Tree will not up and leave. Not when you are so close. Sit a while. Rest your feet. The roots are as good a place as any. See how they knot together? It will make a fine seat. Come now, there is no need for reverence. You will give what the Tree takes soon enough; it can stand to bear your weight for a moment.
There, unlace your sandals. Feel the earth beneath your toes. You have chosen a beautiful day for damnation. I am not sure a softer breeze has ever blown. Take a deep breath. Savor the sweetness on the air. You must be pleased. You have found what you long sought. Revel in this moment: you have accomplished what many could not.
There could be contentment here if you were willing to claim it. But I see how your hungry eyes wander, straying towards the gilded fruit. I do not miss how your fingers twitch towards the branch. Well, I cannot stop you. Pluck the bitter fruit, if you will. Look, the Tree is making it easy for you. The heavy golden boughs lean down magnanimously. Your wish is well within your reach.
Ah, you feel it, don’t you? The shiver that passes through the world as your fingers graze the leaves. Fate holding its breath. Patience, child, one moment more before you pull it from the branch. Peer deeply into the gilt curse’s sheen. Do you see the shadows? Reflections, surely, you will argue, but see how they flicker? Go on, look closer. Do you see it now? Yes, I see that you do. Your complexion is quite ashen. Your hands shake, your fingers tremble like the aspen.
Yes, little one. Pull back your hand. That’s it. Not many have seen the specters of the fruit. Not many are willing to look. They were seekers once, like you. They were filled with such awful wanting. It consumed them, like a rot from within, as the Seed took root. Perhaps one day I will join them. Perhaps you.
That’s it. Take another step back. Another. Ah, you cannot help but see them now. The twisted faces, the hollow eyes. Such wide and gaping mouths. It is a savage want that gnaws on them like hunger. They would tear apart this world to slake their desires. They are the Tree now. Will you join them?
At last. At last. You remember the way? Yes, turn your back on this place. Even now, the gleam begins to fade. This feeling—I had nearly forgot—ah, but the Tree is clever. I had thought just a taste, to turn away just one, would be enough. I should have known better. I have tasted of this sweet and bitter fruit, and I shall always be wanting. But look! A single leaf fallen, curled and brown. In all my long years hounding the Tree, I have never yet seen such a sight. No matter how sharp the blade, the Tree cannot be felled. But perhaps… if enough of those who sought it turned away… it might one day wither.
Oh, but I am an ancient fool, and you are wise beyond your mortal years. There is no sweetness for you here; I can offer you no wish. Take my blessing as bitter recompense.
Go now and walk gently, child, for the leaves are listening and the Tree whispers ravenously beneath our feet.
Step softly, little one, its roots go deep.